More novel than short story, more ballad than poem -- writers agree that restraint and plain speaking were the qualities that distinguished President Obama’s inaugural address. Long on plot (and it will thicken), it did what literature does best: the backward glance, the standing on shoulders, the salute to ancestors and other sources of wisdom.
“He is our first (in the best sense of the word) aristocratic president,” author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell told The Times. “Bush was a buddy. Clinton was the kindly uncle. Obama is a prince.”
And yet Obama is also a writer, and writers were not at a loss for words. Author Ron Carlson was watching the president’s syntax. “What courage,” he said, “to use a complex sentence talking to a million people! By expecting the best of us, he just might get it.”
Writer Mark Kurlansky said the speech “was the most sophisticated view of the world and our role in it of any inaugural address in history.”
Others felt the call to action. “With an Obama speech, listening is sometimes enough,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Thomas Powers, “but not this time. The inauguration speech is one we ought to read. It strikes me as clear and determined and grounded in confidence that of course we are still in the middle of the American story, not nearing the end.”
Author Susan Straight watched the speech with her two mixed-race daughters. Afterward, they discussed their ancestors, the women in their family who never had birth certificates. “We talked about how hard these women had worked -- orphaned and enslaved and desperate -- to keep their children alive and get them educated.”
Other writers praised the absence of the first person singular. “The word that stood out the most for me,” said author Marisa Silver, “was the word ‘we.’ Taking the ‘I’ out of the equation makes us keenly aware of the power and responsibility that we, each of us, have to make differences.”
USC professor Leo Braudy was moved to think about the difference between general forces in history and the force of the individual, particularly someone who, like Obama, embodies past polarities. “This is how history moves,” he said. “It’s all well and good to talk about the rise of liberalism or the fall of communism, but really it’s the individual who carries these forces within him and is able to move history forward.”
Some, like memoirist Patricia Hampl, praised Obama’s plain speaking. “I was glad,” she said, “that he denied himself rhetorical flourishes and gave a speech as refined and restrained in its power so that political language itself was restored to its greatest value -- saying what the speaker means.”
Historian Mike Davis also praised Obama’s restraint, calling it a “brilliantly modulated speech that perfectly showcased Obama’s gravitas while revealing as little as possible of his actual passions. Hopefully we can now take a break from patriotic celebrations and incantations of ‘hope’ and return to rescuing the survivors from the wreckage of the Bush era.”
Clinton speechwriter and author Ted Widmer liked the obvious lack of “elaborate, orotund speechwriter language,” the “tight language, short sentences and strong images” and the many references to past presidents, although he noted the absence of Lincoln quotes.
Novelist Stacey D’Erasmo had some writerly observations. She was struck by how much Obama looked “like an ordinary man on his way to work, alone. When he looked down during the various opening remarks, he actually looked like he was thinking.” She felt she was observing his transformation: “We know that we are watching him become something else, something we can’t, entirely, understand. Subtly, we want him to explain it to us: What does his power mean?”
In pre-speech commentary, Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson (famous for penning the phrase “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) told a reporter: “Writing is writing. It’s a job.”
A good inaugural speech, he said, contains expectations while allowing people to fully enjoy the moment.
As many writers will tell you, this is what writing can do: make the complex sound like plain speaking, contain and channel the emotions, create a kind of bridge from the heart to the mind.
“Here’s a guy,” Carlson said with obvious admiration, “capable of his next idea.”